How to do your First Pistol Squat

It seems as if the fitness industry not too long ago was engulfed in the newest and latest machine. However, the recent pendulum of this industry has been going back to the minimalist end of the spectrum giving attention to calisthenic exercises. This has lead to the popularity with exercises such as the Pistol squat AKA the single leg squat. This exercise however is a complex movement that is overall encompassing of strength, motor control, and range of motion (ESPECIALLY at the ankle). This series will break down WHY you are not able to pistol squat as well as HOW TO have the proper balance of strength, motor control, and mobility to perform this complex movement! Without the proper recipe, you may find yourself falling right on your butt time after time.

Pistol Squat Compensation

Here is performed a pistol squat with mechanics of someone who lack’s dorsiflexion range of motion. This common impairment will manifest with a heel rise or as an inability to keep your balance, resulting in a fall. Think about it like this, if you try to keep your heel on the floor while you do this exercise without the dorsiflexion required, you will not be able to get your Body/Center of Mass over your base of support, your weight will be too far back resulting in a fall straight onto your tush. If you you don’t have adequate  dorsiflexion range of motion enough to perform this movement; shown are 2 different alternative in which you can use to achieve the Pistol Squat.

1. Place an elevated surface under your heel which will bias your ankle in plantarflexion. This will allow you to push in through your heels and keeping your center of mass OVER your base of suppose (which allows you to keep your balance) during the Pistol Squat.

2. For the same reason as stated above, being on the black side of the Bosu ball will allow you to limit the dorsiflexion range of motion this motion requires on a flat surface. HOWEVER, this variation as you can see from my shakiness, increases the demand of the stabilizing muscles primarily at the hip and the core.

Note: Avoid allowing your mid-foot from collapsing AKA PRONATE, this is another strategy used when the dorsiflexion range of motion is not present.
-This motion additionally requires EXTREME knee, hip, and lumbar spine flexion range of motion.

How to Regress the Pistol Squat

Here are two ways in which you can ease yourself into the pistol squat through regressed variations.

1. The first is performing the pistol squat on top of an elevated surface. Make sure to AVOID dropping your hip in order to touch the ground with your foot. Instead, lower yourself from the stance leg on the elevated surface eccentrically. This will allow you to focus primarily on the stance limb and avoid the hip flexion and knee extension control that can cause some people to cramp up.

2. Seated pistol squats are a little more demanding because they will take you through a fuller range of motion as well as require you to lift your contralateral limb out in front of you. Avoid allowing your knee to collapse inward. You want to ideally keep a straight line from your ankles to your knees to your hips. It is important to lower yourself in a SLOW and CONTROLLED fashion without flopping yourself onto the seat. Most people are not used to controlling their weight on one leg, but you improve this by going slowly. Only when you can perform this exercise with good control for 15 repetitions bilaterally should you decrease the height of the seat.

Pistol Squat Compensation

1. In the first clip I am holding a 25 lb plate in front of me as a counterbalance. Pistol squats are one of the only exercises in which adding weight may actually make it EASIER to perform. I use the weight to bring my center of mass anteriorly, making it easy for me to sit back into my pistol squat. As you continue to improve on your pistol squat, you can reduce the weight until you can perform them independently!

2. The second exercise focuses on strength and control. To perform this:
-Lean to one side and bring the contralateral limb out in front of you.
-Hold this position for 1-3 seconds before returning & repeat on the opposite side.
-Once you have improved your neuromuscular control at a given depth, go deeper into your squat and continue with this exercise.

-This is a GREAT way to develop the strength and control required to perform the pistol squat.
Note: make sure to AVOID a compensatory trunk lean towards the squat limb

Assisted Pistol Squats

Here I am doing assisted pistol squats. This can be done with a pole, door frame or any vertical object that is sturdy. While performing this exercise, make sure to keep your heel on the ground while using as little upper extremity assistance as possible.

As you can see from this video, you can progress the amount of assistance from your entire hand to 2 fingers to 1 finger to an independent Pistol Squat!

Some people can get to the bottom portion of the pistol squat. However, many people get stuck in this “unknown zone” and are unable to get up from it. If this is you, ONLY use the pole during the phases in which you need help with.


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